One of the most exciting things I love about Whitman was his use of poetry to define his existence as just another part of nature’s creation. With all the amazing things he accomplished before the Civil War, he was also very private in never tooting his own horn. Gray writes, “Whitman identiﬁes himself, in these lines, with the ‘spear of summer’s grass’ that, at the beginning of the poem, offered him a medium of mystical insight” (111). Whitman is a story all on his own which far outpaces a spear of grass in my opinion. His life story revealed the man he was and strived to be in everything he did to help others even at no benefit to himself.
In 1848, he worked at the Crescent in New Orleans as a newspaper editor and saw the slave blocks first-hand in the French Market. He visited hospitals in New York and worked as a union nurse during the Civil War caring for his wounded brother and other soldiers in Virginia and then on to Washington. He was a man of many talents, but moreover, he was just a man who wanted others to accept him for who and what he was. It is quite easy to see how the Civil War came about when men and women like him were using their literature to lead the way. Moreover, it is easy to see why the work Whitman produced after experiencing slavery firsthand in New Orleans and as a nurse elevated his poetry.
In “Song of Myself,” he wrote, “You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self” (Whitman). He does not want others to take his view. He only asks that others listen and choose their own beliefs based on all the information available. The Civil War, primarily, was more than about good versus evil. It was about opposing ideologies and belief systems. No one stopped slavery when it first came to the colonies. The forefathers owned slaves.
It had been a way of life in the colonies/America for more than two centuries. Slavery was also allowed to continue so that the founding fathers could get the federal government established. Even in 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed because the Northern politicians compromised with slavery so that Southern politicians would agree with their proposition for Texas. It may well also be the act that forced ordinary citizens to get involved because the politicians had played games far too long with both sides of the argument. It certainly is when I notice more authors acting on behalf of abolitionist movements.
Walt Whitman was at the forefront of his work as a nurse and writer of such work as The Wound Dresser. He wrote, “Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave” (Whitman 13-14). It shows his compassion for every soldier in that he did not see a side when weighing the casualties of the Civil War. I think Whitman’s poetry strips away the politics of the war and captures the real losses which were the people he saw lose their lives and limbs countless times. One can also relive the war in some small sense as he tells of rushing into the field to tend the soldiers and witnessing as, “… their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground” (Whitman). The imagery allows modern readers to see how war destroys a single civilization as each suffered unrecoverable losses.
As Gray writes, “For other American voices of the time, the vision of the future involved neither resistance nor revenge, however, but restoration of natural rights and reform” (A History of American Literature 152). Authors like Walt Whitman challenged the social belief of natural rights to make sure that all people had them regardless of color, gender, or sexuality even though many of their rights would take many more years to realize. While many of the Transcendentalists would have been perfect choices for this assignment, I felt that Walt Whitman’s personal decisions and first-hand knowledge of the Civil War made him the ideal choice because his poetry was written while participating in it.